Mauthausen Concentration Camp - Commemoration and Reflection
The Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz in Upper Austria was not among the NS regime’s biggest but undoubtedly among its most horrendous camps. Built in August 1939 by inmates of Dachau concentration camp, Mauthausen was the only category III concentration camp, the classification with the most brutal detention conditions. Until the liberation by US allied troops in early May 1945, almost 200,000 people from practically every European country as well as non-European countries were deported to Mauthausen because of their political activity, their "criminal record", religious conviction, homosexuality and of course for "racist" reasons.
Another major inmate group consisted of prisoners of war. According to records, more than half of the inmates were murdered. In Mauthausen the murder was committed by members of the SS and took on various forms: People were beaten to death, they were lynched or shot while those who had fallen ill were left to freeze or starve to death or they were killed by lethal injections in the heart or gassed.
The infamous "Stairs of Death"
In the quarries not far from the Mauthausen camp inmates were exploited as cheap labour. The so called "Stairs of Death" connected the quarry "Wiener Graben" with the camp. Inmates belonging to different work commandoes had to use them every day. The conditions were unimaginable. Several times a day the heavy granite blocks had to be carried up a total of 168 stairs which consisted of randomly placed rocks of different sizes and some of them half a metre high. With the granite blocks on their backs the inmates had to cover an altitude of 31 metres being chased up and constantly beaten by the SS. Those who collapsed under the weight or from exhaustion were killed. People died on these stairs every day. The granite blocks were quarried to serve Hitler’s "construction craze".
Today, the "Stairs of Death" form part of the guided tours at the Mauthausen Memorial. The steps have been straightened but the horror is still palpable - and it is undeniable.
The "Mühlviertler Rabbit Chase" - when humans hunt down other humans
As mentioned, there were also prisoners of war at the Mauthausen concentration camp. During the night of 2 February 1945 approximately 500 inmates, almost all of them Soviet officers, attempted to escape from the camp. They attacked the watch towers and managed to occupy one of them. The electrified barbed wire was short-circuited with wet blankets so that the inmates could climb over it. Many of the escapees were too exhausted to get very far and soon collapsed. Those who did not manage to reach the woods were shot that night by the SS.
Immediately after the escape, the SS organised a major search in which all members of the SS headquarters staff, the gendarmerie, army units, SA divisions and Hitler Youth groups took part. The SS order was "not to bring any inmates back alive". The hunt for the escapees also called for the assistance of the civilian population. And the people came and willingly obliged. According to the documents and the testimonies given by witnesses there was no immediate threat to anyone nor was anyone forced to participate. They did it all the same. The manhunt was cynically called the "Mühlviertler rabbit chase" by the SS and went on for three weeks. Except for eleven officers all escapees were captured and mostly killed on the spot. Perhaps more than any of the other atrocities committed under the Nazis, this manhunt proves the squalid state of mind and character of a lot of people at that time.
Dr. Ingeborg Bauer-Manhart (Municipal Department 53)